The president-elect of the Maldives Mohamed Muizzu, on 2 October vowed to rebalance relations with New Delhi, stressing that he will commence efforts to remove all foreign soldiers based in the Maldives upon assumption of his office. Muizzu defeated President Solih Ibrahim. Presidential elections were held in Maldives on 9 September 2023, with a second round on 30 September.
Malé mayor Mohamed Muizzu won with 54% of the votes, defeating Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. While local dynamics unfold, the elections also bear significant international repercussions.
There were a few reasons behind Muizzu’s victory. A crack in the governing Maldives Democratic Party led to a party opponent Mohamed Nasheed, taking voters away from Solih. But the biggest factors were seen to be Solih’s failure to deliver new infrastructure projects and the country’s close relationship with India. Muizzu played the “India Out” card in the campaign tapping into widespread concerns about domination by India. In recent years political parties have often invoked sentiments by criticising the government’s close relations and accusing them of selling sovereignty to either India or China. This has often helped them gather electoral benefits. This trend has existed since the country’s democratic transition in 2008. The “India Out campaign”, for instance, began in October 2020 nearly three years before the elections.
In some ways, India’s factor in Maldives politics should be seen as expected. Maldives is a tiny nation of some 500,000 people, next door to the most populous country in the world. It stands astride vital shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and is courted by competing regional powers China and India. India’s interest primarily stems from the Maldives’ nearness and China’s because of Maldives’ maritime location adjoining routes used for China’s energy supplies and the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The last elections of September 2018 were widely seen as a win for India and a hindrance for China. Under the administration led by the Progressive Party of Maldives PPM’s Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, Maldives moved closer to China, participating in the BRI, pursuing mega projects like the “Friendship Bridge” and entering into a free trade agreement (FTA) with China. While the Solih government remained closer and complimented India’s Neighborhood First policy approach. (Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom was elected president in 2013 as the candidate of the Progressive Party (PPM), defeating Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed. In last December the Maldives Criminal Court sentenced him to 11 years in prison and fined him US $5 million after finding him guilty of corruption).
The Solih administration maintains a friendly yet guarded bilateral engagement with Beijing. This prudence acknowledges New Delhi’s fears about China’s potential goals by using its economic influence to entangle India’s neighbors and gaining influence to create a string of pearls comprising military bases around the Indian subcontinent to challenge India’s dominance. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port to Beijing is often cited as a case in point.
In foreign policy, Solih took a blatantly Indian First approach, declaring Maldives’ big neighbor to be its key partner. Outgoing President Solih is a strong supporter of this policy but, India’s power and influence have become deeply controversial during his term.
Many Maldivian nationals/politicians distrust India’s influence and power. Solih also enhanced Maldives’ relations with other regional partners, including Australia, which opened an embassy in the capital.
When Muizzu takes office he will likely face significant pressure to make good on campaign promises to downgrade the relationship with India even removing the Indian military presence of around 2,000 defense personnel and to upgrade the relationship with China, including re-opening doors to Chinese investments. Muizzu will also face considerable pressure from Yameen’s supporters to free him from jail. While he does not have the legal power to pardon Yameen, he could ask the Supreme Court to overturn Yameen’s imprisonment.
In the meantime, Muizzu will need to find a path forward for Maldives foreign policy. While he was elected with the support of Yameen’s party, Muizzu comes from a quite different background from Yameen and his backers. Muizzu may seek to create greater public distance with India but is less likely to change Maldives’ foreign policy posture drastically.
The recent polls have turned into an implicit referendum whereby India and China will have the biggest influence in Maldives. Ultimately, Muizzu will likely stand astride the India-China divide, giving perhaps, primacy to the India relationship on many issues but will also allow closer economic engagement with China. Such a path is difficult and perilous for a small country and would employ dealing with many contradictory pressures. Delhi would also need to be prepared to make a new relationship on Maldives’ terms.
With Muizzu winning the Presidential elections, India’s interests in the Maldives could face risks. So what happens now? Muizzu could reverse Solih’s pro-India policy with a pro-China asking India to pull out its military personnel from the Maldives. China may also begin to play a larger role in the Indian Ocean another Sri Lanka situation to develop. However, India will remain a key partner. So, Muizzu may not want to cause too much tension. He will likely be forced to take a middle approach as stated above.
Growing political fragmentation in the recent elections has only compelled politicians to continue appealing to nationalist sentiments. In a highly competitive presidential race, every candidate has tried to overshadow the other by criticizing India and Solih’s foreign policy. As a result, all parties, including the India-friendly Democrats have criticized the government for over-reliance on India and compromising Maldives’ sovereignty. In the fiercely competitive Indo-Pacific region where the Maldives is receiving a lot of traction, this politicization of foreign policy and anti-incumbency will likely outline the politics of the country and also redefine its geopolitics.
As the Maldives elections have shown, if not given due consideration in smaller states, apparent alignments with big countries can be electoral poison in the domestic political arena.
President Arif Alvi and Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar of Pakistan felicitated Dr Mohamed Muizzu on his victory in the presidential elections. Pakistan enjoys cordial relations with Maldives and harmony of views on important issues of mutual concern particularly on the hazards of global warming and climate change. There is a need to establish strong ties in various sectors of commerce and trade, education, health, parliamentary delegations exchange, HR development, and defense.
Following tsunamis that devastated many countries in December 2004, two Pakistan Navy ships have extended their stay in Maldives to contribute to relief and rescue operations in disaster-hit areas. Maldives has a world-class tourism destination facility and Pakistan could benefit from its expertise. Pakistan can offer distance learning and hybrid learning and education facilities of Open University and Virtual University in various disciplines to Maldivian students. There is a need to effectively utilize all diplomatic mechanisms, including the regular holding of Political Consultations at the Foreign Ministry level, Joint Economic Commission, and Business Councils, to increase bilateral engagements as well as cooperation within the framework of UN, OIC, SAARC, and Commonwealth.
The author has been a Foreign Service Officer with a diplomatic career of around 30 years, During which he held several important positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamabad, and Pakistan Missions abroad.
Ambassador Haider joined the Foreign Services of Pakistan in 1992 and his postings abroad include that of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Seoul (RoK), Pyongyang (DPRK), Jakarta (Indonesia), and Athens (Hellenic Republic).
His last assignment abroad was in the State of Kuwait as Ambassador from 2019 to 2022 while in the Ministry he served last as an Additional Secretary. Earlier, he worked in various Divisions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dealing with bilateral and multilateral affairs as Director General, Director, Deputy, and Assistant Director. He tweets @SajjadDiplomat